Russia hopes to win back the North Pole

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Maxim Krans) - Santa Claus might soon be a Russian citizen. At least, that is the hope of well-known Arctic explorer Artur Chilingarov, who will lead Arctic 2007, one of the biggest expeditions in the history of polar research.

The nuclear-powered ice-breaker Rossiya will escort the Academician Fedorov, the flagship of the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environment Monitoring, which will take about a hundred scientists from Murmansk to the North Pole. Along with unique studies of the far-northern continental shelf, the expedition will carry out the first-ever Arctic dives using the mini-submarine Mir. The first crew will descend to a depth of more than four kilometers, with the deputy speaker of the Duma on board.

But Chilingarov acknowledges the expedition's geopolitical goal: "We want to prove that Russia is a great polar power." A titanium capsule with the Russian flag will be dropped to the bottom as evidence of this. In other words, Russia will publicly stake its claim to the North Pole.

Strictly speaking, Russia claims a triangle-shaped area of the Arctic Ocean; its base includes the Russian coast from the Kola Peninsula in the west to the tip of the Chukotka Peninsula in the east, across the Bering Strait from Alaska. The apex is the North Pole. This triangle covers 1.2 million square kilometers, an area the size of Italy, Germany and France put together. Generally speaking, we have always considered it our own. Starting in the 1920s, this sector was marked as Soviet and later Russian territorial waters on all the country's maps.

At least, this was the case before the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea limited us to a 200-mile economic zone along our coast. Having ratified it in 1997, we immediately lost our right to the rest of the Arctic Ocean, including our chunk of the North Pole. Other countries, not only those ringing the Arctic, laid claims to what we had lost. This is understandable. According to some estimates, the continental shelf holds about 100 billion tons of oil plus a wealth of fish species. Moreover, the Northern Sea Route, running through the Arctic Ocean along Russia's northern coast, is the shortest way from Europe to Asia and the Pacific coast of America, which will make it easy to transport oil and gas from Arctic deposits. The shelf will bring in an enormous amount of money to whomever has the right to develop it.

Though Russia has lost that right, we can still try and get it back. The same convention gives us a chance. If we prove that the shelf - the oceanic Lomonosov ridge - is a continuation of the Siberian continental platform, we can practically have the whole lot to ourselves. Five years ago, Russia was the first Arctic nation to submit an application to a special UN commission set up to determine the ocean's status, but international experts did not find our arguments convincing. We will have another go in 2009 and are now getting ready for it.

The very same ice-breaker being used for this expedition, the Rossiya, carried experts from the St. Petersburg Ocean Geology Research Institute to the eastern Arctic in May. For a month and a half, fifty geologists, geophysicists and pilots scrutinized the ocean floor. The institute's director, Valery Kaminsky, said they had gathered unique information that will enable them to justify Russia's territorial claims. The current Chilingarov expedition is called upon to clinch the victory and show the world that we do not doubt our chances of success.

Needless to say, other claimants to Arctic riches are worried about the Russian bid. The United States is particularly concerned. Time magazine recently accused Russia of intending to annex the North Pole. Somewhat earlier, Senator Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, deputy head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made a statement encouraging the Senate to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention to prevent Russia from pressing its claims to oil- and gas-rich regions without the United States at the negotiating table.

The Americans have reason to be concerned - in addition to its offensive in the North, Russia is also fighting on the flanks. Recently, President Vladimir Putin approved a government proposal to sign an agreement with Norway delimiting the Barents Sea shelf. This would end an almost 40-year dispute over a no-man's-land that covers 155,000 square kilometers and holds more than three trillion cubic meters of gas, an amount comparable to the Shtokman deposit.

When the northern conflict is settled, Russia may concentrate on the eastern flank. It has not ratified the Maritime Boundary Agreement with the United States on the Bering Sea. Signed in 1990 by then Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, it would give our neighbor almost two-thirds of the Bering Strait and Sea.

This generous gesture was intended to show Russia's readiness to compromise with the United States and the rest of the world. Now it seems that times have changed.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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